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Day 04/02/2014

{ Rethinking the Nature of Learning, Part IV } How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Process

Deer in the Headlights

My own problem is not overzealous perfectionism.
My problem is the assumption of failure. Self-censorship —
the little voice in my brain whispering, ‘It won’t work’ —
tends to reduce the possibilities of many things I do.

— Stefan Sagmeister, Things I Have Learned in My Life So Far
(New York: Abrams, 2008), np.

{ Previously: Introduction, Part I, Part II, and Part III }

In the previous installment, I wrote that high-stakes contexts are toxic to learning. They are equally toxic to creativity. For design students, both of these principles pose problems.

As a designer, I define creativity in two ways. Creativity refers to the act of making, of creation, itself. (As our thesis deadlines loomed, the need to be constantly making became an increasing struggle for everyone in my MFA class, as I’ve mentioned.) Creativity also reflects the originality or newness of an artifact or idea. Under pressure, both forms of creativity suffer.

Fortunately, the anxiety that results from high-stakes contexts, and which hampers both learning and creative output, can be mitigated with strategies that reduce the perception of risk and encourage a mindset more conducive to embracing the unknown.

rethinked...* logo

In the final months of grad school, my thesis became very meta: I was knee-deep in research on what happens to learning and creativity under pressure while experiencing both phenomena first hand. With deadlines looming and several design projects stalled or still undetermined, I felt increasingly like a deer in the headlights.

Fortunately, my research in cognitive psychology made me aware that the biggest threat to my learning and creative output wasn’t the external pressure but rather my perception of that pressure. In other words, the anxiety itself.

It became clear to me that I needed a tool, a methodology, that would allow me to reduce or simply sidestep my anxiety and start making. Drawing from contemporary psychology studies on the correlation between strong learning outcomes and constructive forms of metacognition (including “grit” and the “growth mindset”), I began to wonder how much a concertedly self-reflective design process could keep anxiety at bay. My research on intrinsic motivation — the experiential delight we get from inherently enjoyable activities —  also led me to explore play.

Play can be defined as an activity that is desirable in and of itself. More than that, it  makes daunting tasks more manageable.

In play, most of the time we are able to try out things without threatening our physical or emotional well-being. We are safe precisely because we are just playing…. We can learn lessons and skills without being directly at risk.

— Stuart Brown, M.D., with Christopher Vaughan. Play: How it Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul (New York: Avery Trade, 2010), 17.

One of play’s key characteristics is a well-defined set of constraints — i.e., rules. Rules shape challenging and “scary” activities within parameters than make those activities safe. In this way, play mitigates risk.

For instance, a bear cub who is learning to fight by wrestling playfully seems to intuitively understand that its sibling isn’t going to gouge its eyes out in the process. Similarly, any game works — be it chess, football, or Mario Brothers —  because prescribed rules establish what actions can and cannot be taken to achieve a goal. If a player breaks the rules, the game’s integrity is destroyed, along with its appeal. And if the play itself becomes stressful or dangerous, it is no longer play, and accordingly, most people (and bear cubs) will abandon it.

This line of thinking led me to consider whether a constraints-based, chance-driven methodology — in short, a system of rules governing the design process — would create a sense of play sufficient to sidestep anxiety and jumpstart my final thesis project. With that theory in mind, I wrote a set of design parameters intended to limit decision-making, emphasize process over product, and encourage exploration and experimentation.

  1. For Content [C], write down the central themes of your thesis
  2. On that basis, determine x number of projects and a time limit for each
  3. For Format [F], write down x possible forms/kinds of projects
  4. For Procedures [P], write down x procedures to encourage reflection, i.e., walks and writing exercises
  5. Put the Cs, Fs, and Ps in separate containers, then draw one C+F+P combination
  6. Set a timer and start making
  7. Repeat until finished

Simply put, I listed the variables inherent in any graphic design process (content, format, and procedure), wrote down ten options for each, and randomly selected ten combinations thereof. Armed with these instructions, I made ten design projects in two weeks — more or less without further ado.

rethinked...* logo

Was this methodology an elegant solution to my problem? It depends on what the goal was.

If the goal was to do the best design work of my life, then, frankly, no. As individual artifacts, some of my pieces were unsuccessful. But a series of perfect design pieces wasn’t in fact the goal. Making in a high-stakes context was my goal. And in that regard, my constraints-based methodology was an elegant solution, in several ways:

  • By reducing an overwhelming universe of design options down to one incontrovertible option, I avoided the indecision that often suspends making.
  • By creating a series of very small projects as opposed to one big project, I reduced the impact of each design decision.
  • By leaving the primary design decisions to chance (as opposed to determining them on my own), I also avoided the perception that each project somehow reflected the sum total of my skill as a designer.
  • Chance also lead to juxtapositions I wouldn’t have made on my own, leading me to more original solutions and forms I’d never explored before.

Ultimately, my strategy reframed the problem. Initially, the hurdle I faced felt monolithic. Reflecting on the characteristics of play led me to reframe this hurdle as a series of highly circumscribed tasks.

In other words, I went from:

Everything depends on the work you do between now and graduation. OK — Go!


In the next three hours, you have to make a image-driven poster on this theme: “play sets learning and creativity free from anxiety.” You can’t use the computer to create the imagery. Halfway through you have to take a 20-minute walk to assess your progress. 

This shift lowered my perception of the stakes. In turn, that quieted the creative doubts of “little voice in my brain”: Is this going to work? Is this the best I can come up with? Do all my skills as a designer come down to this one project?

In a sense, the real proof of concept was that I made ten distinct design projects in two weeks, which formed the basis for my thesis capstone book.

Not every moment in making those ten projects was fun, but the release from anxiety was immediate and palpable. And I’m happy to say that my methodology created a space where I could pursue pure experimentation — childlike and free — without fear of failure. I could play. I did thesis work and it felt like play. Halleluia! I hadn’t felt that sense of possibility or inspiration since the early days of grad school.

Back in my formative years, my avoidance of risk emerged from internal as well as environmental factors. I contributed to my conflating learning with being right, and in making being right my comfort zone. In that respect, I’m most proud of the fact that I let go of that stale, limiting formula — being a good student at all costs — to experience something I’d never been able to consider before: that the deepest learning can only happen when you find a way to take risks.

Next: Essential questions I’ll be exploring and testing at rethinked…*  

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